Suit Claims City's Take-Down Demand Violated Civil Rights
Jennifer Reisinger runs the sites "Sheboygan Spirit" and "Brat City Web Design," touting her Web development business on the latter. That site also contains a link to the police department.
In October, a city attorney wrote to her demanding that she delete the link to the police force from the site. She initially complied, but the department nonetheless launched an investigation of her, according to her lawsuit.
Reisinger retained an attorney, who advised her to restore the link to the site. The lawyer also contacted the city, which withdrew its cease-and-desist letter.
But that didn't end the matter for Reisinger. Last week, she filed suit in federal court in Milwaukee, alleging that the city's cease-and-desist letter and subsequent investigation violated her free speech rights. "The retaliatory actions taken against Ms. Reisinger by the City of Sheboygan were on orders of Mayor Perez ... and instituted as a means to intimidate and punish Ms. Reisinger for her past political activity," the suit alleges. (Reisinger previously was involved in an effort to recall the mayor, Juan Perez, but her Web sites did not reflect that activity.)
The lawsuit also alleges that Reisinger's income dropped 53% as a result of the city's actions. It's not clear from her complaint why she attributes the income drop to the city.
In the original cease-and-desist letter, the city argued that the link could give the wrong impression of a relationship between Reisinger's Web site and the police department.
But David Ardia, director of Harvard's Citizen Media Law Project, said that the city had no basis to complain about a resident posting information about the tax-funded police department. "There simply isn't any liability associated with linking to a police department Web site," Ardia said.
He added that posting a link is arguably unlawful only when the link implicates intellectual property rights. For instance, one court in 2001 ruled that a Web site could be found liable for contributory copyright infringement for linking to a site with instructions for bypassing DVD encryption.
Bruce Boyden, an assistant law professor at Marquette University, said he is not aware of courts ruling on the precise question of whether a citizen can link to a police department, but it's generally assumed that people can link to others' sites. "There's a wide amount of agreement out there that a Web site owner cannot forbid other people from linking to the site," he said.
The dispute may appear small, but it's also one of a growing number of lawsuits stemming from conflicts between users who create content and commercial or government entities. A recent example is YouTube user Stephanie Lenz's lawsuit against Universal Music Publishing. Lenz, like Reisinger, sued after an entity demanded the removal of content she had created.
In Lenz's case, Universal briefly demanded the removal of a 29-second clip showing her toddler dancing while a Prince song played in the background. Lenz argues that her clip made fair use of the material and that Universal should not have sent a takedown notice. Last week, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that her lawsuit could go forward.